Cancer Research at DKFZ

Cancer Research at the DKFZ

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The DKFZ with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. The institute has strong partnerships with universities, research institutes, and industry partners, both in Europe and world-wide. The quality of research at the DKFZ is highlighted by the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Prof. Harald zur Hausen and the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Prof. Stefan Hell.

The long-term goal of the German Cancer Research Center is to unravel the causes and mechanisms of cancer development and, based on new insights, to develop novel tools for diagnosis, early detection, treatment, and prevention. We build on outstanding basic biomedical research, an evaluation of complex systems (systems biology), as well as efficient platforms for the translation of new findings from “bench to bedside”.

Based on these three key competences the research divisions and groups of the German Cancer Research Center are organized into seven Research Programs (see descriptions below). All project supervisors belong to one of these programs.

Contributions from many disciplines, an excellent research infrastructure, and systematic interactions among the research groups of the Center provide a strong framework for all of our projects.

Research Program A: Cell biology and tumor biology

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Every cancer originates from an individual cell. If its genetic material has undergone a number of changes that can no longer be corrected by repair mechanisms, then the cell breaks out of the sophisticated balance of growth and renewal and starts to proliferate uncontrolled. Thus, to develop new approaches in cancer treatment, we need to understand the complex processes happening in cells and their interactions among each other. The divisions and working groups involved in this research program are studying the mechanisms of cell differentiation, i.e., how cells specialize into the various types of cells and tissues with their specific tasks. To do so, researchers primarily use methods of cell and molecular biology and genetically modified animal models. A focus of research is the regulation of cell-type specific proteins and their functions. In addition, researchers are investigating changes in the genetic material that cause or promote tumor development.

Research Program B: Functional and Structural Genomics

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Cancer arises when genes in a cell are changed in such a way that they cause the cell to divide uncontrolled. For this to happen, however, a multitude of specific changes have to coincide. It is the task of this Research Program to analyze the genome, i.e., the complete set of genes, in order to lay the foundation for developing new diagnostic and treatment methods. This involves mapping the genome, localizing genes within the genetic material, and investigating the functions of cancer-relevant genomic areas. The vast amounts of data accumulated in the process are being captured and evaluated using bioinformatic methods. By combining approaches from mathematics, statistics, physics, and computer sciences with computer-assisted simulation techniques, the theoretical groups of the Research Program are bridging the gap to experimental research. The methods developed within the Research Program are being directly utilized in many areas within collaborations with numerous divisions of the Center: in molecular and genomic investigations of the structure of the genetic material, cancer documentation, medical imaging, and biostatistical evaluations of experimental and clinical data.

Research Program C: Cancer Risk Factors and Prevention

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About 220,000 people in Germany die of cancer each year. 490,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed yearly. Significant progress in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer has been made possible through recent research results in the field of molecular biology. Our Research Program is concerned with identifying risk factors (primary prevention), early detection (screening), and approaches to prevent disease progression (chemoprevention). The German Cancer Research Center occupies a leading position in the area of epidemiological studies as well as in nutrition sciences, biostatistics, and the application of biomarkers (characteristic biological features that are key for the prognosis or diagnosis of cancer). We expect that it may be possible to prevent up to 30 percent of new cancer cases within the next 20 to 30 years. To reach this goal, the main activities of the Research Program are focused on:

  • integrating laboratory research, epidemiology, and clinical studies
  • compiling and extending collections of biological samples and databases
  • integrating genome, proteome, and biomarker research into epidemiological and clinical studies on the causes and prevention of cancer
  • studies to identify causal connections such as between diet and cancer
  • educational measures
  • research and quality control related to tests and early detection programs
  • characterizing new drugs for cancer prevention
  • research in the fields of biostatistics and methological counseling

Research Program D: Tumor Immunology

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The immune system is our body’s most powerful weapon to combat pathogens and cancer cells. However, pathogens and tumor cells alike have a repertoire of tricks to evade the immune response. The Divisions and Research Groups of the Tumor Immunology Program investigate the mechanisms determining the function and behavior of innate and adaptive immune cells in health and disease, including the interactions with their microenvironment. Understanding the basic principles underlying immune cell development, activation, regulation, differentiation and death as well as the molecular mechanisms underlying diversity and plasticity of the immune system is a prerequisite for the design of targeted manipulation strategies to protect from cancer, autoimmunity and infection and to foster and devise the development of novel therapeutic approaches. To address their research questions the individual groups develop and use sophisticated experimental model systems and technologies such as genetic barcoding, structural biology and high-throughput single cell analysis platforms.

Research Program E: Imaging and Radiooncology

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It is the task of the Research Program "Imaging and Radiooncology" to introduce new findings, methods, and technologies into the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Our goal is to tailor tumor treatment to the individual patient and to improve possibilities of local and systemic tumor control. The multidisciplinary Research Program is divided into two areas:

Radiological Oncology: Work is centered around the development of novel approaches in diagnostics and therapy based on physical methods. Main research areas are imaging technologies and radiation therapy technologies. Because of the complexity of the matter, doctors of various disciplines, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and biologists are collaborating in this area.

Medical Oncology: This area is concerned primarily with questions of toxicology, pathology, and chemotherapy as well as approaches in gene therapy. The aim is to develop novel systemic therapeutic and diagnostic methods and to immediately transfer these into a clinical setting. This is achieved through intensive collaboration between the fundamental research divisions of the Research Program and the Clinical Cooperation Units.

Research Program F: Infection, Inflammation and Cancer

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Approximately one in five incidences of cancer is triggered by an infection. Most of them are caused by viruses, but bacteria and parasites may also play an important role in cancer development. Thus, the research program “Infection and Cancer” investigates which pathogens are able to promote cancer, the mechanisms that underlie these cancer processes and how the human body protects itself against these pathogens. The work within the research program is based on four major aspects:

  1. Basic research on the molecular mechanisms of infection and cancer
  2. Development of new diagnostic approaches for cancer-relevant pathogens
  3. Establishment of innovative treatment approaches for infection-related cancers
  4. Development of vaccines against infection-related cancers

Furthermore, epidemiological studies help us to discover unknown associations between infections and cancer in addition to evaluate the efficacy of vaccinations and therapies. Moreover, studies within the research program investigate strategies using viruses as tools for therapy; modified viruses can kill cancer cells directly, can be used in vaccine development or adapted for gene therapy.

Research Program G: Translational Cancer Research

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The Research Program is composed of the Divisions of Translational Oncology and Preventive Oncology, which are both located at the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg and equipped by the DKFZ. Further components of the Research Program are the Clinical Cooperation Units, which are operated jointly with the Medical Faculties of Heidelberg and Mannheim, and further divisions and working groups of the DKFZ engaged in translational research.

The Research Program has three major goals:

1. Supporting the excellent preclinical research of the DKFZ’s translational research portfolio.
2. Offering centralized services for the effective preparation and realization of investigator initiated trials and basic research projects with patient material.
3. Facilitating, via the Departments of Medical Oncology and Translational Oncology funded jointly with Heidelberg University Hospitals, patient access for systematic clinical implementation of phase I to IV trials.

Great importance is attached to creating solid infrastructure conditions, e.g. by obtaining patient material by systematic tumor and serum banking (biobanking), developing regulatory clinical protocols by trial physicians and validated laboratory investigations accompanying trials as well as biostatistical support and evaluation. The goal is also to speed up implementation in clinical research by overcoming the greatest obstacles arising from the laboratory workbench to the hospital bed.

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